June 23, 2008

My First Masters Class - or - (Not Really) A Race Report

I felt like throwing up.
I didn't know why I was there or what I had to prove by going through with it all.
Honestly, I just wanted to leave.

I've said it before, I'll say it again - I get really nervous about racing. I'm not that guy that is bubbling with excitement to get to the starting line. There's no pre-race bubbling for me. Sure, I may sometimes mistakenly say something like, I'm really excited for the race. But that's wrong. I'm not. In reality, I'm just telling you the abridged version of the sentence, which should really go something like this:

I'm really petrified of doing the race because I get so nervous and agitated and anxious and start to doubt myself and wonder why I'm doing it and wonder why I put myself in this situation over and over again so, no Mrs Buttercup, I'm not enthusiastic about it all, and truth be told, I might throw up on your ugly orange Crocs if you don't stop asking me about it though since you don't seem to be shutting your yapper there's one thing I can say for sure and that is that I'm really excited for the end of the goddam race when I'm on the other side of the finish line and all this feeling of self-combustion is behind me.

The real problem, though, is not that I don't like racing, it is that I love having raced. I try not to think about this dilemma too much because inevitably it just makes me question what I'm doing in this godforsaken sport in the first place.

If you really want me to be honest, I'll admit that I even get nervous for some workouts. If it's supposed to be a long or grueling training session, there's a good chance I begin to doubt myself. It's not that I lack self-confidence or that I'm a quitter - it's mostly that I have this profound inability to connect the past with the present. Though I can do Ironman races until my toes go blue, I'll still get to the starting line of a Sprint and question if I can even make it through.

It's like all the memories of my past are stored in one side of my brain and the entire present experience happens on the diametric opposite side of my brain. In-betwixt the two is nothing but a huge, empty, bottomless void. Death befalls he who tries to cross the void.

It's not normal. Nor is it based in anything that resembles reality. Logically, I know that I can get through the workout, the sprint, the race. I know it because I've seen myself do it time and again. Unfortunately, reality and logic have nothing to do with my athletic self-analysis.

So anyway, somewhere along the way I became a halfway decent swimmer. If I knew you a little better, I'd admit to you that I think the reason I'm a good swimmer is because I'm a Pisces. Us fish, we take up swimming very quickly. However, since you and I are not yet BFFs, I'm not going to say that, because if I did you'll just think I'm all weird and woo-woo, and you'll probably make fun of me when I'm not around. So let's just say I really focused on my swimming for a few years, paid very close attention to the fast folks out there and somehow figured out how to move my scrawny little body forward somewhat efficiently.

I'm no Michael Phelps or anything, but I tend to finish the swim somewhere around the top 20% overall in any given race. When I do my 100 yard repeats in the pool, I'm usually in the 1:18 to 1:25 range. I'm not trying to brag by any means, just trying to give you some information that may be important to know later on in this story, if I ever get on with the story.

* * *

I've talked about joining a Masters swim club for about 5 years now, maybe longer. I'm really good at talking about swimming.

I've always known that Masters would help me with my swimming, but I've always been a little intimidated. You see, when Catherine and I show up at our dinky little YMCA pool at 6:30 in the morning, it's just us and a Greyhound busload of geriatrics who can barely keep themselves afloat. Compared to that crowd, we are Olympians. It's good for the ego.

Masters, on the other hand, is an ego killer. I know that without even having to show up.

But, alas, Catherine and I have made a couple of friends with some of the "normal" folks at the gym. For the past year these guys have been telling us about the YMCA Masters class. It's more low key, they said. We only do about 2,500 yards, not some ridiculous 6,000 meter workout, they promised. It's a fun, friendly group of people, they continued. Sounds like fun, I'd respond time and again. We'll come next week.

But come next week, we didn't come. This has been going on for over a year.

You want to go to the Masters class? I'd ask Catherine

Not really, she'd reply

OK, I'd agree. And that was that.

Fast forward to this week and something apparently changed.

I'm going to the Masters class on Monday, Catherine said. Wanna join?

Are you serious? I said rather quizzically. If I had the gene that let me raise one eyebrow higher than the other, I would've done that.

Yes, she replied. I'm serious.

Have you ever been to a Masters class before? I asked her, though I already knew her answer.

No, she said. But we're going on Monday.

Oh. OK.

* * *

The YMCA Masters group starts at 6:00 pm. Catherine and I got onto the pool deck at 5:50 because, for some reason, we thought that was the right thing to do. I suppose we equated it to a dinner party. If dinner at Jimmy and SueBeth's house is scheduled for 6:00, it's only proper to show up a little earlier, maybe even with a bottle of wine, a box of homemade croutons or some other party favor to make them think you're really thoughtful.

But alas, apparently the same show-up-early rule doesn't apply to swimming groups. The clock hit 5:50 pm as Catherine and I stood awkwardly alone on the pool deck. We gently eased our nervous bodies into a lane and figured we should kill time by warming up, so we started swimming slowly. After about 100 yards we stopped on the edge of the pool and looked around. 5:52 pm. Still noone.

I looked at Catherine.
She looked at me.
We stood there. Swim caps on. Goggles on.

What are we supposed to do? I asked her, feeling somewhat uncomfortable.
I don't know, she said. I guess just wait.

I could feel the nervousness creeping through my veins. It was like that moment when they call the wave right before yours. The wetsuit is on, transition is put together, you haven't yet started but already there's no turning back.

The thought of me getting a butt-whoopin in my first Masters class awakened all the pre-race monsters that lurk in the murky waters of my stomach. Though logically I knew this was just another swim workout, for my body, this was race morning. I had that feeling of dread, the wonder-why-I'm-here-in-the-first-place feeling. Oy.

I think I might throw up, I said to Catherine. Maybe I should keep swimming.

After another hundred yards or so, I noticed the coach had come to the poolside and was closing off three lanes. Cat and I stopped swimming and stood around kind of awkwardly, both of us waiting for instruction. Isn't that what you're supposed to do in Masters class, wait until you're instructed to do something?

You guys here for the workout? Coach Andy asked, probably more out of pity than friendliness.

Yes! I blared in probably a more excited tone than was required.

He smiled the way you do at the annoying little kid who keeps stepping on your feet when you're in the grocery store line.

So why don't you two swim 300 slowly, he instructed.

Exactly what I need, another 300 yards. Since my dramatic decline in exercise over the past months, I can barely get through 2500 yards without my arms falling off and here I am doing 600 of warm-up before the workout even begins. But he's the coach, so we swam.

As we finished our warm-up, I noticed that about six other swimmers had appeared. I looked at the clock, 6:07. Mental note, apparently Masters swim etiquette is more like fashionably late cocktail party than pleasantly early dinner party.

Three people had gotten in the "fast" lane next to us and a woman who didn't seem to know much beyond the doggie paddle was in the "slow" lane. That left Cat and I with a lane to ourselves. I began to feel a bit more comfortable, knowing that, first, I wouldn't have to swim in circles and, secondly, that I can share my misery with Catherine in the quiet solitude of our own lane.

OK, everybody, Coach Andy said as he brought a whiteboard over to the side of the pool. Time to go. Here's today's workout.

At first I looked at the board and thought it was some sort of complicated physics theorem and our only hope of actually understanding it relied on our collective ability to channel all the intellectual energy we could from Good Will Hunting. There were numbers and X's and circles with division lines and combinations of words I'd never even heard before. And just as I was about to get out my abacus, Coach Andy began to explain the workout.

Truth be told, I'm not quite sure what he said, but there definitely were a lot of numbers. Three times one hundred done seventy five free twenty five back faster each twenty five faster each hundred on the one-fifty by the two-ten four hundred in fifty increments of twenty five with forty two fifty three on seventy five, hut, hut, hike!

Through the first five minutes of his soliloquy, I got pretty nervous. About halfway through I realized that there was no hope in me remembering it all, so I shouldn't even try. I can barely remember my age, the odds of me committing this workout to memory was somewhere between slim and nil - and Slim just left town. So I just shut off my mind.

We started with 100 repeats. Three of them. I hit 1:21 for the first one, which felt all nice and fine - until I started the second. The second one began to hurt. It's too early to hurt, I thought. By the time I got through the third one, my arms already felt like jello. Uh-oh.

Next up was a 400 swim that was broken up into these crazy, yoga-like drills that involved hip rotations and dolphin kicking and all sorts of gyrations that my body is just not accustomed too. The way I was humping the water made me feel like a lame extra in a porno version of Finding Nemo. The 400 was supposed to be the "easy" part, but by the time I got 300 into it, I felt like I was going to drown. I was focusing to try and keep my composure - or as much composure as can be kept while thrusting into an aquatic void.

Suddenly I realized that Catherine was no longer in my lane. Huh?!? At the same time that I see her over in the "slow" lane (she's not going to like that one) I notice two other guys have jumped into my lane. Uh-oh.

I get to the end of the lane, I realize that one of the people is Simon. The good news is that Simon is one of the "normal" friends that convinced me and Catherine to come here. The more challenging news is that Simon is fast. Really fast. Simon just came in 2nd in his age group at the World Championships. Simon kicks my ass so fast, he's done kicking before I even know I've been whooped.

As for the third guy, I don't know who he is and he doesn't seem to know us, but it's time for the next set of 100s, so enough with the pleasantries. I tell Simon he should go first, he does. The other guy and I look at each other and shrug our shoulders. After you, he says. And so I go.

I push with all my might for the first 100, for fear that the guy behind me is going to swim right over me. On every turn I notice he's back there, but not yet about to smack my heels. After I finish 75, I begin to do backstroke as fast as my tired arms would allow. I can see our reflection on the ceiling above us and realize that he's not exactly on my toes, but he's catching up. I finish the first hundred and my arms feel like rubber bands. My nose itches but I can't quite find the energy to lift up my hand and scratch it. That's OK, though, because it's time for another fast 100. And then another. At this point I can barely believe I'm still breathing, which means it's time to swim 400 with more thrusting and gyrating and other movements that at once not normal for human beings and not for normal human beings.

I somehow survive all of that and feel I've done well. I'm proud of myself for the three seconds that I have available for pride until I realize that we have to do the whole thing over again. Coach Andy looks over at Simon and says, why don't you do 1:15s for these next three hundreds. Simon nods. Then Andy looks at me and the other guy and says, ummm, and why don't you guys shoot for 1:20.

I laugh. The other guys look at me and laugh at me (not with me). Hows about I shoot for 1:20, I say to them, but actually finish in 1:30.

And just before we start, Coach Andy tells the third guy to go first, Simon second, me last. Next thing I know, we're off. And third guy? Apparently he's been holding back all the entire time because he was knocking off hundreds in about 1:10 like it was nobody's business. He was dropping Simon pretty quickly. And me? Well, I was the guy that they almost lapped every 100.

Another 400 later and we were done. We survived. My arms were so tired I could barely pull myself out of the water. But we survived. Just like a race, I didn't want to be there but I'm glad I was. I didn't necessarily love the workout, but I sure loved having done the workout. And I suppose this is what people have been talking about all along - that the only way to swim better is to swim with those that are better. I definitely pushed myself thanks to my lane mates. It was tiring, it was grueling, I couldn't wait for it to be done. But I suppose that's a good thing. And I'm going to try to remember this feeling of accomplishment next time I show up at a masters swim before it falls in the huge, bottomless void.


KodaFit said...

That almost inspires me to hit the pool - almost...

I agree with the having raced feeling, I always describe races as standing there ready to start thinking "Why am I doing this?", racing thinking "How can I do this?" and then finishing thinking, "That was the coolest thing in the world".

By the way, your Finding Nemo reference got huge laughs here in the office!!


1HappyAthlete said...

lol - I'd kill to be swimming 1:15-1:30 100's

I'm the one getting lapped in the slow lane swimming 2:00 / 100 :(

Captain Cactus said...

Your description of dolphin kick is one of the funniest images I've ever read! Thanks for that!

Anonymous said...

That was bloody hilarious!!!!!!!!! I can just picture it all.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

Nemo.... lol

Jen in Budapest said...

OMG!! Hilarious!!!

One of my favorites
"it's just us and a Greyhound busload of geriatrics who can barely keep themselves afloat. Compared to that crowd, we are Olympians. It's good for the ego."

Thanks for the comic relief. I too want to try a Masters sometime but after reading your experience, I think I need a lot more laps solo in the pool before I take on a coach Andy or something.

Aspiring Writer said...

Oh my god. Everything you said about hating racing could have come out of my mouth. Thanks for putting it into words for me.